The majority of Maine voters don’t want to see Republican Gov. Paul LePage re-elected. That doesn’t necessarily mean he will lose, however.
“Nobody is neutral on Paul LePage,” said Howard Cody, a political scientist at the University of Maine. “You either like him, or you don’t. There are 60 percent who don’t.”
Normally, an incumbent with favorability ratings as low as LePage’s would lose to the nominee of the other party. Indeed, there are Mainers who have been driving around for four years with bumper stickers reading “61 percent,” in reference to the share of the vote LePage’s opponents took against him in 2010.
But LePage could once again come out on top of a split field. Eliot Cutler, the independent who finished second last time around, is running again. He’s well-funded and has issued many policy proposals that have resonated well with voters.
Most polls, however, show a tight race between LePage and the Democratic nominee, Rep. Mike Michaud.
“2014 is a very different year than 2010,” said David Farmer, a senior adviser to the Michaud campaign. “We believe this is a two-person race between ourselves and Gov. LePage, and we absolutely have the best path to change who is in the Blaine House in Augusta.”
Democratic candidate Mike Michaud on the campaign trail. (AP/Michael C. York)
LePage is known for making brash and politically incorrect statements. He once compared the IRS to the Holocaust, for example.
“He’s not the most smooth-talking politician, that’s for sure,” said Alex Willette, the governor’s campaign spokesperson. “But people in Maine see that he’s getting the job done.”
As proof, Willette touts the state’s record on job creation during LePage’s time in office, as well as his tax cuts and budget reductions.
LePage has pushed for a major overhaul of the state’s welfare programs.
But it’s been hard for LePage to get that proposal and other priorities through the Democratic legislature. Michaud promises to work with legislators to enact policies such as an expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act -- an idea LePage vetoed.
During the campaign’s final debate on Tuesday, Michaud had little difficulty pointing out his differences with LePage on issues such as education funding and the minimum wage. His challenge has been drawing more of a contrast between his stance on the issues and those taken by Cutler.
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler (AP/Pat Wellenbach)
During the debate, Cutler dismissed a question about his relatively low standing in the polls -- he takes about 15 percent in most surveys -- saying that he would gather strength during the closing days of the campaign.
Such a surge happened two years ago. Libby Mitchell, the Democratic nominee, was widely seen as running a poor campaign. “People deserted the Democratic Party, because Libby was a weak candidate,” said Sandy Maisel, a Colby College political scientist.
Many flocked to Cutler, who finished within a couple of percentage points of LePage. (Another independent, Shawn Moody, took 5 percent, further fracturing that year’s vote.)
Things may be different this time around. For one thing, Michaud is credited with running a better campaign than Mitchell managed in 2010. He also started out the race better known, as a former state Senate majority leader and member of Congress representing the huge 2nd District, which covers most of the state outside of Portland.
“My feeling is that most of the people who are undecided right now between Michaud and Cutler are going to decide based on the last couple of sets of polls,” Maisel said. “If Cutler can’t break 20 percent, I think they’re going to desert him in droves.”
That’s typically what happens -- polling support drops for independents closer to Election Day, as voters worry about “wasting” their votes on a spoiler with little chance of winning.
Plenty of Democrats are livid that Cutler is running again -- including some who supported him last time. But people in Maine remember how close he came. A couple of polls last month showed his support at around 20 percent. Cutler may be well behind, but he has kept Michaud from opening up anything but the narrowest of leads over LePage.
And LePage, for all the controversy he’s engendered, has maintained a level of support that, while limited, has been practically unchanged since he was first elected.
LePage will hold onto his minority support. If Cutler holds onto his, LePage could make history. Eric Ostermeier, a University of Minnesota political scientist, points out on his blog that no governor in U.S. history has been popularly elected twice with less than 40 percent of the vote.